The Farmer sends me this man’s words often — because his is the only blog the Farmer is subscribed to — and I don’t know how many times we’ve said it here at our farm table, that books by Scott Sauls should be in the hands of every single Christian without exception. Very few pastors or theologians have more spiritually formed our family than his, and his every word is read under our roof. Tim Keller has called Scott’s latest offering, Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans, “A deeply pastoral book.” Joni Eareckson Tada says, “I give this remarkable book a double thumbs up!” and Sandra McCracken says, “This book reads like a rope-ladder of mercy.” When Scott’s newest book — (!!) which we have been anxiously awaiting (!!) — landed here, the Farmer claimed it as his first because the man knows: Scott Sauls faithful words points to the Word and changes lives — every time. We love this man with all our hearts and gives us great joy to welcome our friend, Scott Sauls, to the farm’s table today…
When someone said this to me recently, it wasn’t the sound of the words that surprised me as much it was the person who said them.
The insult didn’t come from a stranger on the internet, an upset church member, a partisan antagonist, or some other usual suspect. Instead, it came from someone I have known my entire life. This person understands me inside and out. I am closer to him than I am to anyone else including my brother, my children, and even my wife.
The person who told me that I suck was me.
I said the words out loud while hiking alone. It slipped out of my mouth impulsively, as if from a primal instinct, without premeditation and straight from the heart.
“Out of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Out of the heart the mouth speaks.
Lodged in my heart at the time was a shameful memory of mean-spirited words I had spoken to another person in public. My words had been crafted to harm, targeting a fragile, vulnerable place in her soul. I wanted to injure and humiliate her. It was cruel, and I was cruel. I have replayed this incident in my mind many times. I offered several apologies and received her forgiveness each time.
Eventually, she insisted that I stop apologizing because we were approaching the seventy-times-seven mark.
The hurtful incident for which she and God forgave me, and because of which I recently told myself, “You suck,” happened thirty-seven years ago. It’s been almost four decades but still feels like yesterday. Like a familiar song or movie, the memory has become part of me. Like the “damned spot” that Lady Macbeth tried frantically but unsuccessfully to erase.
More recently, I ran into an old friend at a Christian conference in my hometown of Nashville.
In college, we had participated in juvenile behavior involving alcohol and basically making fools of ourselves. At the time, we thought fancied ourselves as funny and the life of the party. We often egged each other on in these behaviors. Now here we both were, some thirty years later, all sobered up and participating in a Christian conference.
My friend broke the awkward silence and said, “I have only two words for you: I’m so sorry.”
“That’s three words,” I responded.
Then I said, “I’m sorry too. I would also like to introduce you to a better version of the friend you had in college. I am a friend of Jesus now, which I trust will make me a better (and more sober) friend to you.”
The next morning, my friend showed up unexpectedly at our church, where I was able to serve communion to him. It was full-circle wonderful to be able to do so.
“Guilt, shame, and regret from the past die hard for us. The one whom the Bible calls “the accuser” throws it all in our faces, keeping memories about the worst things we’ve done so alive that in our own minds, they start to define us.”
I mention these two incidents, both of which are told in greater detail in my latest book, Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans, to show how second-nature it is for us to hold on to things we’ve thought, said, or done that make us feel ashamed. Guilt, shame, and regret from the past die hard for us. The one whom the Bible calls “the accuser” throws it all in our faces, keeping memories about the worst things we’ve done so alive that in our own minds, they start to define us.
“I said something mean” becomes “I am mean.”
“I did something ugly” becomes “I am ugly.”
“I made a big mistake” becomes “I am a big mistake.”
We pastors are no less in need of grace than the next person. We, too, can be our own worst enemies and no amount of effort, positive thinking, or determination will make it otherwise.
Admitting this about ourselves like Isaiah did with his unclean lips (Isaiah 6:1-8), David with his adultery (Psalm 51), and Paul with his coveting (Romans 7:7-25) is not only brave but healthy. Coming clean like recovering addicts improves our relationship with God, the people we are called to serve, and ourselves.
Transparency about our unfinished selves is far better than relying on false, wishful verdicts about ourselves as we nudge God out of the picture.
“Only an esteem that comes from beyond us—namely, from the forgiveness, favor, and freedom achieved for us by Jesus—will be able to help, hold, and sustain us.“
Self-esteem is overrated. Only an esteem that comes from beyond us—namely, from the forgiveness, favor, and freedom achieved for us by Jesus—will be able to help, hold, and sustain us. His gruesome, haunted exterior on the cross mirrored our haunted, sin-contaminated interior. But grace becomes amazing as we are able to cry,
“Nothing in my hands I bring;
simply to Thy cross I cling.
Naked, I come to Thee for dress;
helpless, I look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly.
Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
(Toplady, Augustus, “Rock of Ages”)
Guilt (the regrettable things we have done) can easily turn into toxic shame (the regrettable worms that we are) as we appraise our own worth. The interplay between guilt and toxic shame becomes, for some of us, a distinction without a difference.
Whenever toxic shame gains a foothold, things like grace, forgiveness, and new mercies leak out of us like water passing through a drain hole. It’s almost as if we’re hardwired for self-loathing, trapped in its grip like a tired, demoralized, wing-clipped eagle stuck in a birdcage.
But Jesus wants to help people stuck in the birdcage get their wings and freedom back. There is a bright blue sky of forgiveness and grace for demoralized, defeated souls. The air space is unlimited and free. Freedom is what he wants for us.
“Rejoice, because God knows the very worst, darkest, damaged things about you and chooses to stay.”
Even as I write this, I pray that the ugly things from your past and present would lose their grip on you.
I pray that you will come to understand that even though the ugly things are part of your story, they don’t define you.
I pray also that the eyes of your heart will be opened to receive the grace that is greater than the very worst thing about you. You couldn’t escape it if you tried because as sure as his tomb is empty, the goodness and mercy of Christ will follow you all the days of your life (Psalm 23:6).
Rejoice, because God knows the very worst, darkest, damaged things about you and chooses to stay.
And, in hopes that your heart can receive it, the things you dislike about yourself the most are the very things that stir God’s love toward you the most.
This is an adapted excerpt from Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his lovely wife, Patti, and daughters, Abby and Ellie. He blogs regularly—seriously, bookmark him, or better yet: subscribe to him like the Farmer does! —and can be found being humble light on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
About Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen, Russell Moore has said, “I read everything I can by Scott Sauls…This might be his best book yet.”
I strongly concur. Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen is a window into the gentle heart of Jesus for anyone facing regret, hurt, or fear.
It also helps pave the way, through Jesus, to help sinners and sufferers become the loveliest version of ourselves. This is an absolute must-read that I cannot recommend highly enough.
[ Our humble thanks to Zondervan for their partnership in today’s devotion. ]